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Star Warrior

By Melanie Kirkpatrick

ARLINGTON, Va.--In his 1983 "Star Wars" speech, Ronald Reagan famously asked, "What if free people could live secure in the knowledge . . . that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil?"

Fast forward to this summer. On July 4 North Korea test-fired a long-range ballistic missile believed capable of reaching the continental U.S. The launch was a flop--the Taepodong 2 fizzled before it got off the ground--but to echo Reagan's question, what if? What would have happened if Pyongyang's missile had been heading toward Los Angeles? Could we have shot it down? "I'm confident that we could have," states Lt. Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering III, director of the Missile Defense Agency. "If that missile had proceeded to threaten Hawaii or the continental United States, then we would have had the ability to shoot it down. I'm confident the system would have worked."

Years ago an American general, asked a similar question, would have had a one-word answer: "No." Until 2004, when the ground-based missile-defense system went partially online in Alaska--with the aim of intercepting an intercontinental missile coming from North Korea or the Middle East--the U.S. was wholly undefended against attack by ICBMs. This ground-based system, as it is called, is still only intermittent, and works only against long-range missiles. Moreover, the U.S. has no defenses deployed against what many consider to be a more immediate threat--a short- or medium-range missile, say a Scud, launched from a vessel off the coast of the U.S.

So it's perhaps no surprise that when Gen. Obering and I sit down in his L-shaped office at the Pentagon's immense Navy Annex--an office whose window has a bird's-eye view of the newly rebuilt portion of the Pentagon destroyed on 9/11--he gives the impression of being a man in a hurry. He discusses the emerging threat--"there are thousands of missiles" out there and "they've become more accurate . . . more militarily effective." He talks about the current capabilities of the U.S. antimissile program--they're "limited." He lists future requirements--"sea-based" and "space-based."

And, inevitably, he brings up budgets--perhaps recalling the fight in Congress this spring over funding for his agency's programs: "If you look at all of the money that's been spent on missile defense since Ronald Reagan started the program in 1983--adding in the 2006 budget--it's approaching about $100 billion, $90-something billion dollars. If you look at the damage costs from 9/11 alone just in New York City, based on a GAO report of 2002, it was $83 billion. That means if we can prevent just one attack against one major U.S. city, we almost would have paid for the entire program for the last 24 years."

But first, the here-and-now. That word "limited" (to describe our antimissile program) is a little disconcerting, especially as North Korea is threatening to test more missiles and Iran, which reportedly had a representative on site in North Korea on July 4, is rushing ahead with its own missile program. Just how "limited" is the current defense?

In keeping with the Missile Defense Agency's unorthodox practice of fielding new systems concurrently with testing--the classic approach is to test, then field--the unfinished ground-based system is already in use. "We've actually taken the system from what we call a developmental and test status to operational status many times over the past two or three years," Gen. Obering says. "I can't talk about any one particular day, whether we're on or off or whatever, but suffice it to say that for the foreseeable future we will continue to cycle back and forth between the operational state and the developmental state."

The interceptor missiles are housed in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. By the end of the year the aim is to have 13 interceptors in Alaska and two in California. This provides minimal coverage for the U.S. and none for Europe--"We can't defend Europe from California or Alaska." Protecting U.S. allies is one reason the U.S. is negotiating to locate 10 interceptors in Europe--probably in Poland or the Czech Republic--but the other is "redundancy," one of the general's favorite words. The U.S. wants the ability to take more than one shot at an incoming ICBM. If ground is broken next year, as planned, a European site could be up and running by 2011.

What about defenses against short- or medium-range missiles? "We can defend against that sort of threat with some of the programs we have today," Gen. Obering says. He mentions the ship-based Aegis system, which Japan is buying for protection against North Korean missiles, and the Patriot PAC-3 antimissile system, which was used in the Iraq war. "So we have the assets, but"--here comes the catch--"we don't have enough of them yet and we don't have them deployed" to protect the homeland.

Gen. Obering mentions other systems that are in the works: the airborne laser, designed to shoot down missiles while they are still in the boost phase (that is, when that the warhead is more likely fall back to Earth on the enemy), and Thaad--an acronym for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, which had a successful test last month. Thaad's missile and its manufacturing production line were redesigned a few years ago with the help of Nascar, which brought its "modular mentality" to the job, the general says. "They can change a tire in less than a couple of seconds, they can fuel in less than a couple of seconds, they can replace body parts just like this." (These words are uttered with a bracing snap of the general's fingers.)

The overall objective of the missile-defense system is to provide a "layered" defense, another of Gen. Obering's favorite words. "Now what do I mean by that? When a missile goes through flight, it goes through basically those three phases. There's a boost phase--a power phase--then it coasts during the mid-course phase and then it comes into a terminal phase, which is usually re-entry into the atmosphere for most of the missiles that we're talking about. What you want to do is build defenses in each one of those phases in an integrated, layered fashion.

"You also want to tie together as many of your sensors as you can. You want to tie together your space-based sensors with your ground-based radars [and] with your ship-based sensors and radars because it gives you a much better picture of what we call a birth-to-death tracking of the target. Well, the ABM Treaty would not allow us to do that. We could not mix what were considered to be regional, theater missile defense assets such as an Aegis ship or a Patriot system . . . with the ground-based mid-course system."

The general is referring to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty under which the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed not to defend their countries against missile attack. The U.S. withdrew from the treaty in June 2002. "Coming out of the treaty has allowed us to take full advantage of this integration between assets," Gen. Obering says.

What's next? "In my mind, space-based interceptors [are] very attractive," he says. To those who say that would mean the "weaponization" of space, the general has a ready answer. "We already do intercepts in space, because that's where the missiles fly . . . What we're talking about is having space-based interceptors that would engage from space." Congress has authorized funding for some space experiments starting next year.

He also favors putting more sophisticated sensors in space. "If someone had told me 15 or 20 years ago that we'd be fighting in Afghanistan, I wouldn't have believed them. We don't know where we're going to be fighting in the next 20 years . . . and so instead of populating radars around the world to try to guess where those threats are going to be coming from, it makes a lot of sense to go to space . . . We have sensors in space but they are not sensors that you can accurately track from."

At the time of Reagan's missile-defense speech, Gen. Obering was an Air Force captain on loan to the space shuttle program at the Kennedy Space Shuttle. Does he remember the speech? "Oh, yes, very much so. It was very dramatic. . . . It was intriguing to me to [see] the vision that President Reagan had--to say, you know, we don't have to live under this threat. We can actually do something about it."

Does he object to the term "Star Wars," the mocking nickname given by Sen. Ted Kennedy to what was then known as the Strategic Defense Initiative? A big smile crosses his face. "Personally, I don't. . . . When you look at what the 'Star Wars' movie was really about, I think it fits. . . . It was basically the force of good trying to address the force of evil."

Ms. Kirkpatrick is deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

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